In the United States, Sara Zaske says, we use the label “free range” to describe parenting practices that “place a high priority on fostering self-reliance, independence, and responsibility in children,” but in Germany, “it’s normal.” Because German parents believe “that handling risk is a necessary part of growing up,” they let “children play and learn without constant supervision and correction, trusting them with simple tasks and choices.” German parents worry too, she writes in Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, “but they refuse to let fear drive their interactions with their kids.”
Achtung Baby is at its most valuable when describing concrete observations, such as how children in Zaske’s Berlin neighborhood walked to school and hungout at playgrounds alone, and when providing historical and cultural context (for example, “Germans, after all, know something about the dangers of a culture of control” and “I was starting to get the message about how things were done in Germany: Show up on time. Pack your own bags. Get your paperwork in order. Be prepared. In short, be responsible.”). I also appreciated Zaske’s willingness to tackle Americans who over-parent directly and without apology (“[R]elax a little on the attachment issue”).
The book runs into problems in two areas, however. First, Zaske’s writing felt flat. Her tone shifts from journalistic to conversational in whatever the opposite of “seamlessly” is, and I personally had no desire to grab a drink with the mama reflected in the more memoir-ish mode. Second, no matter how many times Zaske qualifies (e.g., “The current German approach to parenting is by no means uniform”), she makes sweeping generalizations about both nations, relying on regional and class-specific anecdotal evidence often enough to rankle (e.g., “In these conversations one thing struck me over and over about the German mothers in particular: they had almost no guilt about putting their young children into child care…. These comments were vastly different from the attitudes of the mothers I knew in the United States, including myself.”).
That said, like Pamela Druckerman (on French parents) and Amy Chua (on immigrant parents) before her, Zaske can arguably be forgiven for the light she sheds on important topics. She sticks flags in the sand on the significance of things like universal preschool, play-based education, generous recess, optional elementary homework, social-emotional learning, push back on testing, and leveling with kids about sex—phenomena supported by reams of research—and I found myself nodding and even audibly agreeing: yes, Sara, YES.
If you aren’t now, if you think kids should be using flashcards rather than sharp knives or if you find yourself saying, “Be careful,” all the time, yours would be well spent reading Achtung Baby.